Will This Year's New York Fashion Week Be Free of Pejorative Labels Like 'Gypsy Spirit'? | Opinion

A gentle breeze caught the free-flowing folds of my long light dress as I slowly walked towards the swimming pool after admiring the sunrise over the ocean. I stopped to stretch my arms, took a deep breath of the refreshing Florida air and felt the cool smooth stones beneath my bare feet. The dress I was wearing came from a collection initially called "Gypsy Soul." As a Roma scholar researching Gypsy stereotypes, I could see the appeal of clothing that exhibits free-spirited adventure.

The fashion world in particular uses the casual term Gypsy extensively to portray a fantasy of freedom, mobility and lawlessness, but few realize its deeply problematic nature. That was also the case with the Indian-American fashion designer Viji Reddy who runs Alamwar Textiles. A friend put us in touch because of her "Gypsy Soul" clothing line and my work on Roma issues. We met for the first time in Manhattan and she invited me to visit her home in Florida for an ongoing dialogue about Roma culture and her brand.

The use of the term "Gypsy" in the fashion industry has often been especially pervasive during fashion week, which returned yesterday to New York and will continue through London and Milan, ending in Paris at the beginning of March.

In the coming weeks we will see what surprises they have prepared for us this year. In previous years, runways of fashion week carried outfits ranging from the elegant, to the provocative to the downright bizarre. Also, it has been a time for opening a Pandora's box of stereotypes, misrepresentations and cultural appropriation.

Controversial uses of African-American or Native-American imagery usually make headlines, but "Gypsy Fashion" often seems to get a pass. You see it not only in the styles, clothing lines and brand names, but even in the way major publications write about the event. For example, last year Forbes wrote:

"A gypsy spirit—albeit, a very posh one—permeated through Longchamp's second runway presentation at New York Fashion Week. The storied French brand—known for its practical travel accessories, particularly the Le Pliage bag—showed an assortment of pieces that spoke to wanderlust, to rock stars and their fans who traipsed from city to city with a song in their head and spring in their step."

As a Roma woman reading this in a prominent publication, I felt my blood pressure spike.

One of the most outrageous examples comes from the brand Gypsy Sport. Their time on the 2018 runway saw a parade of topless women wearing outfits that defy explanation. There was nothing "Gypsy" about it except the name. In fact, Roma clothing has traditionally been rather conservative. In 2017, the company had concerns that their latest fashion show might be considered offensive, but their concern did not stem from the word "Gypsy," a pejorative term for an ethnic group numbering over 12 million people; instead they worried that their references to homelessness might come across as mockery. This shows how shockingly unaware the fashion industry can be about their use of the term "Gypsy," one of their favorite buzz-words.

Even some of the most successful and widely recognized brands in the world have products labeled "Gypsy." You can buy a Gucci brand floral-printed "Gypsy" cocktail dress, or Dior's "Gypsy ruffled bag" (if you have a ridiculous amount of money to spare on such items.) Georgio Armani had extensive Roma-inspired outfits in their 2008 Fall collection.

When acknowledgement of the Roma culture is made, it's usually misguided, inaccurate or downright ignorant.

In 2008, fashion designer Anna Sui told The New York Times: "The romanticizing of the Gypsy has always sparked interest in me. I love the idea of gathering cultural influences in the wake of migration," she said. "So many of us are a conglomeration of cultures, especially with all the traveling that we do in this global workplace."

The statement capitalized on the increasingly appealing idea of global citizenship. As someone living in New York, doing my share of traveling, I get the power of this fantasy and its attractiveness. Oh, it's delightful to experience cultural diversity in a variety of places! In fact, my visit to Florida was a taste of this sort of mobility. But it's a fantasy transformed into reality for the few privileged with the means to fly from one cosmopolitan place to another.

This glamorous lifestyle however is not only inaccessible to the vast majority of the Roma, the very group at the core of this idealized projection, but also ignores the harsh realities that underlie Roma migration.

Most of the Roma are settled in different parts of the world and many of those who still travel are not mobile by choice, but due to centuries of persistent persecution. Invoking Gypsy as a symbol of high-class globe-trotting, while most Roma cannot dream of such a lifestyle, is not only inaccurate, but also harmful, since it moves the public even further away from recognizing Roma marginalization and the need for change.

In that same Times piece in 2008, Former Dior designer, John Galliano, justified his use of Roma styles and the term "Gypsy," saying "The Gypsy lifestyle is a perfect fantasy, and as we all know reality is often very different from the fiction."

While the fashion industry sells this "dream" the Roma find themselves ever further removed from it. They are frequently denied employment, proper housing, education, healthcare and all the other basic human rights we need to be free in society.

This lack of freedoms even extends to the very clothes we wear. Many Roma are forced to hide their ethnicity for fear of discrimination. As a child I experienced this personally as my mom dressed me in muted colors because she feared that anything flashy would make my ethnicity obvious. It's the non-Roma who get to buy designer clothes in order to look "Gypsy."

Paradoxically, the marginalized culture is reluctant to enjoy their own cultural products to avoid being stigmatized, while the dominant culture gets to use and enjoy them freely.

Do the majority of companies or designers care about any of this? I think that Italian fashion designer Roberto Cavalli answered this quite candidly "I'm a fashion designer, not a sociologist. Fashion is about dreams, not about reality."

This statement captures the apathetic and indifferent ways in which the fashion industry often views the Roma. Clothing styles and designs are lifted wholesale from Roma people who created them but derive no monetary or other benefits from them. Fashion designers inspired by Roma culture do not even try to raise the profile of Roma issues or bring attention to their plight.

Sometimes I wonder how an industry that is supposed to create beauty in the world can generate so much ugliness.The fashion industry is one of the greatest sources of pollution globally. It's routinely responsible for exploitation of workers. Cultural appropriation is itself a form of exploitation, taking the form of intellectual property theft of original designs by local artists or misrepresentation of an entire culture.

Therefore consuming ethical, sustainable and slow fashion, a growing trend in recent years, should entail not only avoiding products from companies that exploit the environment and workers, but also avoiding companies that exploit the cultures of others as inspiration, use stigmatized names to increase their sales and nonchalantly dismiss those people and their struggles.

After our initial discussions about her creative work and the Roma realities, Viji Reddy, the fashion designer who created the fashion line called "Gypsy Soul," decided to rename her collection. Her decision made me comfortable to engage with her further. "I don't want to use pejorative language" she said to me while still expressing interest in Roma culture and a genuine desire to meet with Roma women and learn about their fashion and design for future collaborations. Her openness and consideration is a responsible approach that many other fashion designers should emulate.

Cooperation between Roma and non-Roma fashion designers should be encouraged. Being inspired by a new culture can be positive as long as it leads to collaborations that are mutually beneficial economically. Moreover, the voice and agency of the Roma people must be respected. That kind of considerate collaboration can result in new groundbreaking work, modern clothing and innovative designs, not at the expense of the Roma people, but created together with them.

Years ago I visited a small, poor Roma village in Romania, my country of origin, and saw a young Roma girl I remember vividly. She stood with statuesque posture wearing a red velvet dress, once pretty but now tattered, and stained with mud. She was so beautiful, but given her isolation and the stigma surrounding her village, I doubted she would grow up to perceive her own beauty and potential. Despite the stereotypes about Gypsy women as beautiful and seductresses, many Roma women themselves suffer from self-doubt and low self-esteem because of their darker skin and long experience of bigotry.

I can only imagine the difference it could make if she could see a Roma woman like her dressed in finery, on the runway at fashion week or professionally successful Roma women spotlighted by TV shows and fashion magazines. The fashion industry needs to represent girls like her in beautiful and empowering ways. Then fashion designers will truly spread beauty in a better world.

Cristiana Grigore, a writer living in New York, runs the Roma Peoples Project at Columbia University.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​